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Ditton v. Rusch

United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division

September 9, 2014

CHRIS DITTON, in his individual capacity and his capacity as Assessor of Avon Township, CYNTHIA L. BRUST, and RICHARD M. WATTS, Plaintiffs,
LISA RUSCH, in her individual capacity and her capacity as Supervisor of Avon Township, CATHY DEGROH, CHRIS LARSON, WILLIAM MCNEILL, LISA DELAMAR, AVON TOWNSHIP, and THE AVON TOWNSHIP BOARD OF TRUSTEES, Defendants.


JOHN Z. LEE, District Judge.

Plaintiff Chris Ditton is the Assessor of Avon Township, Illinois. Plaintiffs Cynthia L. Brust and Richard M. Watts are employees of the Assessor's Office. Ditton, Brust, and Watts filed this lawsuit against Avon Township, Lisa Rusch, who is the current Supervisor of Avon Township, the Avon Township Board of Trustees, and individual Avon Township Trustees, Cathy DeGroh, Chris Larson, William McNeill, and Lisa DeLaMar (collectively "Defendants"), claiming that the Defendants violated Plaintiffs' constitutional rights by impermissibly retaliating against Plaintiffs for opposing the individual Defendants in prior Township elections. According to Plaintiffs, Defendants did so by adopting a 2014 budget for the Assessor's Office that would force the Office to institute employee layoffs and cut benefits. Plaintiffs now ask the Court to preliminarily enjoin the Avon Township Board of Trustees from enacting the 2014 budget. As set forth below, the Court concludes that Plaintiffs have not met their burden of establishing that injunctive relief is warranted, and Plaintiffs' motion is therefore denied.

Factual Background[1]

Plaintiff Chris Ditton ("Ditton") is the Assessor of Avon Township. Ditton Decl. ¶ 1. In 2009, Ditton ran for the Board of Trustees of Avon Township as part of a slate called "Avon Forward, " which ran on a platform of cutting property taxes and delivering more efficient services. Id. ¶ 4. Plaintiff Cynthia Brust ("Brust"), an employee of the Assessor's Office, also supported the "Avon Forward" slate, of which her husband Tom was a member. Brust Decl. ¶¶ 1, 3.

Defendant and current Avon Township Trustee, William McNeill ("McNeill"), and the mother of Defendant Chris Larson ("Larson"), another current Trustee, ran for office on an opposing slate. Ditton Decl. ¶ 4. Although Ditton was not elected Trustee, in December 2011, the Trustees appointed him to the position of Avon Township Assessor. Id. ¶ 15. McNeill was the only Trustee to vote against Ditton's appointment. Id. ¶ 6.

Four years later, in 2013, many of the "Avon Forward" participants ran for office as part of the same slate, renamed "Avon Action." Id. ¶ 7. The "Avon Action" slate included Ditton, Tom Brust, Larson, Defendant Lisa Rusch ("Rusch"), and Defendant Lisa DeLaMar ("DeLaMar"). Id. Brust and Plaintiff Richard Watts ("Watts") actively campaigned on behalf of the "Avon Action" candidates. Brust Decl. ¶ 5; Watts Decl. ¶ 4. The campaign was marked by discord, and Larson withdrew from "Avon Action" before the campaign ended. Ditton Decl. ¶ 8.

The "Avon Action" slate was opposed by candidates from another slate, "Avon Strong, " which included McNeill and Defendant Cathy DeGroh ("DeGroh"). Id. Ultimately, Ditton was elected Assessor, Rusch was elected Supervisor, and McNeill, Larson, DeLaMar, and DeGroh all were elected to the Board of Trustees. Id. ¶ 1; Rusch Dep. 4:16-20; Compl. ¶ 52.

Plaintiffs allege that after taking office in 2013, Rusch was the subject of continued harassment by DeGroh, McNeill, Larson, and David McArtin, a Township employee who had supported another candidate for Rusch's position. At a certain point, however, DeGroh, McNeill, Larson, and McArtin redirected their animus away from Rusch and towards Ditton. Brust Decl. ¶ 7.

When Ditton took office, he had two full-time employees and one part-time employee. Ditton Dep. at 91-92. Soon after taking office, Ditton hired Brust and Watts to fulfill what he perceived as critical staffing needs. Ditton Decl. ¶¶ 15-18. However, at the time he took office, Ditton never complained about the amount of work at the Assessor's Office, nor did it appear that the work was being handled in an insufficient manner. Ditton Dep. at 82-83; Ex. 1A, Dkt. 11 at 5. Defendants assert that most, if not all, of the current Assessor's Office employees also have second jobs, in addition to their full-time positions at the Assessor's Office. Dkt. 25, Defs.' Supp. Resp., DeGroh Aff. at 2; McNeill Aff. at 4-5; Rusch Aff. at 4-5.

In December 2013, Ditton presented his proposed 2014 budget to the Board of Trustees. Ditton Decl. ¶ 20. Ditton asserts that the budget was identical to the one approved in the prior year, which was already "bare bones." Id. ¶¶ 19-20. Ditton claims that he heard "rumblings from people in his office that the Board was looking to cut his budget as political retribution." Id. ¶ 20. As a result, he held numerous meetings with certain Trustees to negotiate the scope of his budget and agreed to several minor reductions in his proposed budget. Id. ¶ 21. Ditton claims the Trustees led him to believe that the budget would be passed substantially as proposed, and that at no time did any of the Trustees mention to him that Avon Township was experiencing a "fiscal crisis." Id. But on March 9, 2014, Larson and Rusch informed Ditton that the budget for the Assessor's Office that the Board would approve would be considerably less than the one Ditton had proposed. Id. ¶ 22.

On March 10, 2014, the Township held its formal budget meeting. Id. Ditton attended the meeting and presented his case as to why his proposed budget should be adopted. Id. Ditton alleges that at the meeting Trustee Larson claimed the Township was experiencing a "financial crisis" and blamed it on the prior Board (of which Ditton was a member). Ditton also claims that Larson displayed overt animus toward Ditton and his office. Id.

The Board rejected Ditton's arguments and preliminarily adopted the Board's proposed budget without alteration. Larson Aff. at 6. It is also undisputed that, although the budget was not formally adopted until May 12, Ditton did not provide the Board with any additional information as to why the Assessor's Office needed more funding, nor did he seek to reopen budget discussions with the Board. Dkt. 17, Ex. 2, McArtin Dep. at 90 and 119; Ex. 1, Ditton Dep. at 70-71; Dkt. 25, Defs.' Supp. Resp., DeLaMar Aff. at 3-4; Larson Aff. at 6-7.

As compared to the budget proposed by Ditton, the 2014 budget reduced funding for employee salaries at the Assessor's Office by approximately 30%. Rusch Aff. at 5. In effect, the 2014 budget reduced the four full-time equivalent ("FTE") positions currently employed at the Assessor's Office to two-and-two-thirds FTE positions. Larson Aff. at 5. When making these cuts, the Board took into consideration the number of hours that the current Assessor's Office employees were spending on secondary jobs to determine the amount of time not presently being spent working for the Township. Rusch Aff. at 5. Indeed, Ditton acknowledged that two of his employees also worked as real estate agents and that another employee drove a school bus part-time. Ditton Dep. at 31-32. In addition, he conceded that all of his employees, himself included, work less than forty hours per week and that he never tracked the time his employees spend at the office, although he could do so. Ditton Dep. at 30-31. It also is undisputed that Ditton has the complete discretion to use the funds provided by the 2014 budget as he sees fit in order to perform the duties of his office, including the hiring and firing of staff. Id.; Ditton Dep. at 72; see 35 Ill. Comp. Stat. 200/2-65; 60 Ill. Comp. Stat 1/500(a).

As for the Township's financial condition, Defendants' witnesses testified that the previous Township Board had reduced the tax levy by 27%, forcing the present Board to draw $161, 000.00 from the Township's reserves and implement significant, across-the-board budget cuts that impacted all aspects of the Township's operations. Defs.' Resp. to Mot. for Prelim. Inj., Ex. 2, McArtin Dep. at 90. Plaintiffs counter that, in April 2014, the County Clerk informed the Township that the actual tax revenue would be higher than projected. Dkt. 11 at 9. Plaintiffs further contend that the Township's current reserves are in excess of $1, 000, 000.00. Compl. ¶¶ 19, 47.

Legal Standard

Plaintiffs ask the Court to enjoin Avon Township from enforcing the final 2014 budget as enacted. "[A] preliminary injunction is an exercise of a very far-reaching power, never to be indulged in except in a case clearly demanding it." Girl Scouts of Manitou Council, Inc. v. Girl Scouts of the USA, Inc., 549 F.3d 1079, 1085 (7th Cir. 2008) (internal citations and quotations omitted). The moving party must make a clear showing that it is entitled to the relief it seeks. Goodman v. Ill. Dep't of Fin. & Prof'l Regulation, 430 F.3d 432, 437 (7th Cir. 2005). To determine whether a preliminary injunction is warranted, the Court engages in a two-phase analysis: a threshold phase and a balancing phase. See Girl Scouts, 549 F.3d at 1085-86.

"To survive the threshold phase, a party seeking a preliminary injunction must satisfy three requirements." Id. at 1086. First, the party must show that it will suffer irreparable harm without the injunction. Second, the party must demonstrate that traditional legal remedies would be inadequate. Third, the party must establish that its claim has some likelihood of succeeding on the merits. If the party cannot make a showing as to each of these threshold requirements, the preliminary injunction must be denied. Id. If, however, the party meets this initial threshold, the Court will proceed to the balancing phase of the analysis. Id.

In the balancing phase, the party seeking the injunction must demonstrate that its harm in the absence of such relief outweighs any harm that may be suffered by the non-moving party if the injunction is granted. Id. In making this determination, the Court employs a sliding scale approach: "[t]he more likely the plaintiff is to win, the less heavily need the balance of harms weigh in his favor, the less likely he is to win, the more need it weigh in his favor." Id. (quoting Roland Mach. Co. v. Dresser Indus., Inc., 749 F.2d 380, 389 (7th Cir. 1984)). Additionally, where appropriate, this balancing process "should... encompass any effects that granting or denying the preliminary injunction would have on nonparties (something courts have termed the "public interest")." Id. (quoting Ty, Inc. v. Jones Grp., Inc., 237 F.3d 891, 895 (7th Cir. 2001)). Taking into account all of these considerations, the Court ...

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